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Monday, August 25, 2008

Summer DVD Club: Digging a deeper hole with "Six Feet Under"

Having heaped on the praise like so many piles of graveyard dirt during my Season One introduction to "Six Feet Under," it's onto Season Two and Three of Alan Ball's critically acclaimed HBO series -- which sees Lili Taylor become an important centerpiece in the ongoing Fisher family drama and the eccentric arrival of Rainn Wilson as Schrute Before He Was Schrute. (Warning: contains major spoilers.)

When we last saw the Fishers: The Season One finale ended like a series finale, with some healthy closure brought to the ongoing emptiness that plagued the Fisher family following the unexpected death of family patriarch Nathaniel. Sons Nate Jr. and David became joint owners of the family funeral parlor, putting aside their personality differences to grow closer as not only business partners, but brothers. Nate and Brenda, while certainly not in the most stable relationship considering their hot-and-heavy introduction, rid themselves of a major distraction (some would say threat) when Brenda's bi-polar brother, Billy, is institutionalized. Claire finds her own destructive relationship in a lost soul named Gabriel, while Ruth explores widowhood courtesy of a sexual re-awakening. David finally overcomes his self-loathing by coming out of the closet to Ruth and putting the pieces of his complex life together.

Season Two thoughts: It's a bit cheap now that I think about it, but Season Two of "Six Feet Under" proved even more riveting than Season One -- simply by flipping the script. David becomes more confident in his sexuality; Keith becomes increasingly destructive due to a drug-addict sister and on-the-job stress. Brenda gives into her sexual impulses while drafting an "erotic novella," and becomes more like Billy with each passing day. Nate adds gasoline to the fire during a seemingly innocuous trip to Seattle, where old flame Lisa (Lili Taylor) resides. Seeing several characters act in direct opposition to the previous season's behavior proves compelling. After all, it's human nature to not only be hypocritical, but for life events to severely alter the way people can begin to lash out. In the case of Brenda, who had previously been the most stable Chenowith -- which, next to Billy and her mom, isn't saying much -- things really start to unravel when fear (of normalcy? of intimacy?) starts to kick in.

Meanwhile, the show's pervasive life and death theme takes on new meaning due to Nate being diagnosed with Arterio-Venous Malformation, a fatal brain condition that causes seizures and by season's end, requires surgery with potentially life-altering repercussions. Nate and Brenda's fragmented relationship dominates the season -- mostly with Nate being painted in a sympathetic light due to his medical disorder and Brenda's out-of-control sexual impulses making her a truly loathsome character.

Once Brenda begins using her book research and friendship with a prostitute/massage client named Melissa as a means to explore sexually dangerous situations -- and more importantly, sabotage her increasingly tepid relationship with Nate -- it's almost hard to watch her without wanting to kick the TV screen in. Not that Nate is without fault, but whereas Billy was crafted in a way that made him seem more helpless than dangerous, Brenda just comes off as self-centered and frankly, downright repulsive. That she can't own up to her sickness, blaming Melissa for being a destructive influence when it's all Brenda's doing, makes for an interesting set of circumstances heading into Season Three.

Nate and Brenda eventually implode after both are revealed to be carrying heavy baggage -- Lisa is unexpectedly having Nate's baby after a moment of weakness in Seattle and -- surprise, surprise! -- Brenda's erotic novel is far from fiction. The scene where Nate discovers Brenda's sexual liasions -- her manuscript's all too accurate description of a stoner's hat and surfer lingo springing to life before his eyes -- is particularly well executed. From the Christmas episode "It's the Most Wonderful Time of Year" on, the show hits its stride and even surpasses Season One in terms of overall quality. With Nate headed (no pun intended) for the operating table, the superb finale reveals a family intimacy the Fishers never knew they had. Meanwhile, Brenda packs up her place and drives off for parts unknown.

Season Three thoughts: And just like that, things get ... boring. Maybe "Six Feet Under" lost its focus due to the loss of key writers, Alan Ball not being as hands-on, whatever. But the sense of intrigue and overall freshness of Season One and Two doesn't carry over to the third leg with the arrival of Lisa. Having gone through the wringer with Brenda and survived major brain surgery, Nate marries Lisa and devotes himself to new daughter, Maya. It's a classic TV convention -- for fans of "The Wire," we'll call it the Domesticated Jimmy McNulty Season Four plot device -- where a major character tries to prove something to him or herself by becoming something they're not. In this case, free-spirit Nate wants to be a good father and husband, and during the early going, he does an admirable job with Maya.

But Nate doesn't love Lisa. In fact, he doesn't even like her, which leads to the major plot point of Season Three -- the disappearance and eventual drowning of Lisa -- falling flat. All sympathy goes out the window for Nate, at least from this viewer, when what he's secretly always wanted to happen ... well, happens. Granted, the pair did some necessary patchwork on their marriage previous to Lisa's disappearance. But Lisa's micromanagement not only proved irritating to lip-biting Nate, but also to viewers. Does Lisa's death matter? How you answer that question determines whether you feel Season Three is a step forward or a step back. While Peter Krause does an incredible job with his character, sanctimonious Nate starts to feel sorry for himself and begins a Brenda-like downward spiral. That includes abandoning his daughter for several spells, lashing out at funeral patrons, and having several empty sexual encounters -- thus transforming him into the new loathsome "SFU" character of record.

Speaking of Brenda, she come to grips with her sexual instability and attempts to actually know a new neighbor before sleeping with him. Brenda's conversion goes a long way toward helping wipe away the bad taste from her Season Two breakdown. The tease of her getting back with Nate seems inevitable. David, who is back with on-off boyfriend Keith, fails to do much but bicker the entire season. Ruth, who had previously been linked to a hairdresser and florist (Nikolai, who was an amusing secondary character), finds comfort with a mysterious, six-time divorcee named George (James Cromwell). Rico, now a partner in Fisher and Sons, gains some added depth when his wife becomes depressed, and Rainn Wilson arrives as oddball mortuary apprentice, Arthur -- or as my wife put it, Dwight Schrute in "The Office" episode where he gets a concussion and is polite to Pam. I kind of wish I'd watched "SFU" before seeing Wilson as Schrute, but even with the obvious transference, Arthur's addition is fun and leads to a few laugh-out-loud moments.

Finally, the best plot arc revolves around Claire (has Lauren Ambrose done anything of note since? Shameful.), who I'd argue remains the most likable and realistic character through three seasons. With a clear sense of purpose, Claire gets into LAC-Arts and starts to realize her true potential. Her relationship with a confused, Billy Chenowith-in-the-making named Russell (hey, it's Ben Foster, or Eli from "Freaks and Geeks!") becomes increasingly strange and volatile. Claire stays true to form in the face of a devastating discovery regarding Russell and their tyrannical art teacher, and remains fiercely consistent despite everyone else in the Fisher family falling off the rails.

Questions for Season Four and beyond: The biggest problem with Season Three is that, while not awful, it felt plodding. Problems are revealed to the viewer early on, and the entire season coasts along with the same whining from Nate, the same nagging from David, the same flippancy from Keith, etc., without the other shoe dropping when it should. Not being in a position to care about Lisa makes her disappearance and death feel anti-climactic. At this point, I'm not sure it even matters if it was suicide or murder (though if any of the "SFU" writers are Kate Chopin fans, it's probably the former.) Perhaps the quintessential scene is in the season finale when a drunken Nate picks a fight with a bar patron, and instead of feeling sorry for his "grief," I just wanted the crap to get beat out of him. And it does. And I smiled.

The random sexual encounters in Season Three also tend to be a bit much. Also, it seems like the deaths in the beginning of each episode seem to matter less and less in the overall plot structure, which is a shame. But the real issue is how the luster has worn off a few of the main characters, and frankly, they've become (here's that word again) boring.

Season Four on the horizon, and just like summer, momentum and goodwill is fading ... fast.

-- Thomas Rozwadowski, trozwado@greenbaypressgazette.com

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4 Comments:

Hmm, you may be right about season 3. Lisa was a big burden. But seriously, don't give up on it. There is much much more to be thrown in for the last two seasons. I guess I have to stop there for risk of giving things away...

By Blogger Eileen, At August 30, 2008 at 7:45 PM  

Also meant to add that I know Lauren Ambrose has done theater also, she did Juliet in Shakespeare in the Park in NYC a couple years ago, so her disappearance from television may be justified, but I miss her too.

By Blogger Eileen, At August 30, 2008 at 7:46 PM  

Season 3 is by far my least favorite season of all. Stick with it, because the season finale of season 4 makes it ALL worthwhile.

By Blogger Amanda, At September 3, 2008 at 11:20 PM  

Still going, almost halfway through Season Five. I like where some of the plot strands from Season Three went, but by far, that season was the worst. A really strong series, though ... can't wait to see how it ends.

-- Tom

By Blogger Press-Gazette blogger, At September 6, 2008 at 1:35 PM  

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